The uncontained violence against unaccompanied Central American minor migrants in the U.S.

By Stephanie L. Canizales, UC Postdoctoral Fellow at the UC Merced; and Samuel De León, undergraduate in Poli Sci and Sociology at Texas A&M – August 7, 2019


The rise in unaccompanied minor migration in 2014 drew attention to the economic, political, and social conditions in children’s home countries that prompt their migration just as it did the generation before them. Aside from the violence of displacement and migration, violence against children occurs in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Custody. Children are being held in tent cities, detention centers are severely overcrowded, and regard for the health, humanity, and safety of asylum-seekers has diminished. Recent reports indicate that holding cells are largely unsanitary as children do not have access to soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, or beds.

As of June 2019, children would be denied access to English classes, outdoor play, and legal aid in federal facilities. Overcrowding, hunger, dehydration, and sickness outbreaks are rampant. Children (and adults) are exposed to these conditions over prolonged detention periods.

Additional reports of children who remain in federal custody show that the children are frequently sexually abused in detention centers by adult staffers and other unaccompanied children— pointing to a general oversight of the safety and wellbeing of children. Neglect of child safety has contributed to the deaths of six children in custody (notably, indigenous Guatemalan Maya children), severe illness of infants, and the birth of stillborn children. These deaths reinforce the severity of prison-like conditions, deprioritization of physical and mental health, and dehumanization of Latinos, and Latino children, in the U.S. immigration system.

The well-being of minors in federal custody will continue to deteriorate if the government successfully reconfigures procedures for children’s release to a sponsor. In May 2018, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) began sharing the personal information of sponsors with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which expands the jurisdiction of the enforcement agency. This agreement between ORR and DHS has led to the arrest of 170 potential sponsors and longer detention periods. This agreement compounds with the administration’s attempts to withdraw from the Flores Settlement Agreement, a federal ruling that determines the conditions of care and prompt release of children to a caretaker in the U.S. Under the current administration’s plan to limit the release of children to a parent/legal guardian, children may be indefinitely held in federal custody as their parent/legal guardian moves through immigration court. Children with parents/legal guardians in the U.S. account for 41% of all children in federal custody; therefore, 59% would be denied release to a sponsor. Federal officials repeatedly violate children’s health and safety in their custody.

As attention remains on unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children on the border and in federal custody, thousands of children are resettling in counties throughout the U.S. Recent interviews with legal, health, and education service providers in Harris County, Texas—which resettles the highest numbers of asylum-seeking children in the U.S.— show how life in the U.S. may reinforce trauma from prior exposure to violence by enacting new forms of violence that compound the suffering of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers in the U.S.

Seeking Asylum in Harris County, Texas

     In Harris County, service providers recognize the challenge of achieving formal legal, educational, or economic protections when a child’s conditions of migration are silenced through trauma and fear. Matters are worsened when youth are exposed to violence in sponsoring in the U.S., which compounds prior experiences. As youth move through detention, resettlement shelters, sponsoring households and schools, they also navigate a bureaucratic U.S. immigration system. The possibilities of protection for children are narrowing. Indeed, numerous restrictive measures that enact legal violence on youth have been introduced in response to the rise of unaccompanied minor migrants arriving in the U.S., including proposals to mark youth from non-contiguous border countries as immediately removable upon apprehension, redefine the bounds of ‘unaccompanied’ status to exclude children with parents living in the U.S., and allow for the indefinite detention of children, among others.

Since 2014, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services scheduled asylum interviews in the order they were received, a policy known as First In, First Out. Rocket dockets, an Obama-era tactic, aimed at fast-tracking backlogged applications through the prioritization of unaccompanied children or families with children in response to the ‘surge,’ which presented a challenge for attorneys assembling evidence necessary for asylum. In 2018, the federal government introduced a new tactic—Last In, First Out—as a counter to Last In, Last Out. Referred to as a “legal black hole,” this new strategy of placing the most recent arrivals at the top of the immigration courts’ priority list significantly reduces the amount of time that attorneys have to prepare cases, making asylum less attainable. According to attorneys and other service providers in Houston, Last In, First Out places earlier-arrived children in limbo, or liminal legality, for longer periods of time. Evidently, attempts to make the immigration system more efficient can intensify youths’ exposure to violence.

One of the primary effects of fast tracking is the challenge it creates for attorneys and other stakeholders to serve unaccompanied minors as they are unable to build rapport with children. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are forced to relive these experiences as attorneys work to “craft the ‘perfect victim,’” as one family counselor described. Asylum-seeking children are asked to constantly repeat their story to multiple adult figures as they construct their “paper lives” that appeal to immigration court judges, creating “a theatre for survivors [because] attorneys and judges want to see kids cry.” The ever-changing policies that govern the fate of children in the U.S. immigration system can induce further violence on immigrant children. Many worry that the structure of asylum application procedures, hearing scheduling policies, and the normalization of violence against children are affecting the health and livelihoods of advocates. Case managers and others who deal with the social integration of unaccompanied minors’ in the U.S. agree that children are most injured by legal policies and procedures.

In Harris County, geography has much to do with this. One paralegal reported, “The kids don’t have rights, especially in Texas”—referring to Texas’ position in the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit, which exacerbates the vulnerability of migrant children legal protection. Importantly, two Texas Immigration Courts—Houston and Arlington— host the largest number of backlogged immigration cases (9048 and 7203 cases, respectively) nationwide, which exacerbates time pressures that contribute to re-traumatization. That many agree that Houston is among the most welcoming cities in the state points to a grim future for many unaccompanied minor migrants seeking asylum in the state.


Containing violence against unaccompanied minor asylum-seekers


Violence against children prompts their migration and moves beyond their individual lives to affect others within their communities and networks and has long-term implications on the development, health, and integration of unaccompanied youth.  Research finds that post migration experiences exacerbate previous trauma and induce toxic stress into the lives of individuals and communities. When experienced by children, and at young ages, violence and trauma can cause or contribute to mental health challenges in adulthood.      Thus, we suggest that containing violence against unaccompanied minor migrants should be observed as a public health concern.

There are multiple ways policymakers can address this concern:

Prioritize migrant child and adult health, especially in cases of long-term custody;

Enforce oversight of federal agencies;

Secure legal counsel and timely asylum hearings as access to legal counsel increases chances of protection from 15-73%;

Provide wraparound post-release services to children and sponsoring families, with a focus on health, education, and economic stability of households; and

Establish trauma-informed procedures for those working in the legal, health, education areas of child resettlement.

As the unaccompanied minor migrant population grows inside and outside of federal facilities, violence is rearing its head.  Failing to contain it promises lasting health, social, economic, and political challenges for generations to come.

About the authors:

Stephanie L. Canizales is a UC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California at Merced. Her book manuscript, Sin Padres Ni Papeles, examines how undocumented and unaccompanied Central American and Mexican youth experience incorporation as they come of age. Her research has been published in Ethnic and Racial Studies and the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Twitter: @stephcanizales

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